Bald Eagles: The (Very) First Sign of Spring

Posted January 15, 2009
by Clay and Pat Sutton


We were on a winter walk more than a birding foray, yet binoculars were, as always, a part of our winter outfits. The northwest wind was frigid, but in the woods and bundled up, we were warm enough. None-the-less, we sought sunny spots with the same fervency that we seek the shade on hot summer days.

Emerging from the woods, we scanned a large lake, a favorite spot in large part because of the giant Bald Eagle nest on the far shore. We scanned the distant edge and nest. Even in winter, resident eagles often perch on or near their nest. What we saw was our very first sign of spring.

Just visible over the rim, we could see the top of the eagle’s head, glowing white in the low afternoon sun. She was on eggs! A few minutes later, we were fortunate to see the male winging in, and then a nest exchange as the male relieved the female. As he carefully nestled down onto the nest, the female arrowed to the nearby marsh to begin her daily hunt.

The state biologist later confirmed our sighting, and related that the first eagle egg in this nest was laid on January 4, which set a new all-time early date for eagle nesting in New Jersey. A second pair of New Jersey’s 70 plus pairs of Bald Eagles are also already on eggs. They have a long way to go and a lot of cold weather to endure, but the annual nesting cycle is underway.

As dusk descended, and the cold slowly crept in, we headed for home. A pair of Great Horned Owls began to duet from deep within the woods. They too, despite the temperature and despite the date, must have been feeling frisky and that spring was in the air.

Early Nesters

Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls are the earliest nesters of all of the breeding birds of southern New Jersey. Even in the harshest “old fashioned” winters, these birds are on eggs by mid-February if not earlier.

This ingrained “strategy” is thought to allow these predators to take advantage of the maximum amount of prey items at the crucial time when hungry young need lots of food.

Eagles will take advantage of March and April runs of fish returning to the estuaries. Great Horned Owls take a wide variety of prey, but no doubt the spring bumper crop of voles, rabbits, squirrels, and muskrats greatly helps the harried parents raise their voracious owlets.

So spring comes early in Cape May’s natural world. Just as both gardening and fishing tackle catalogs begin arriving in our mailboxes in January, to brighten the short and dark days of the dead of winter, so too the alert naturalist can depend on the first signs of the coming renewal to energize us during the coldest days of mid-winter.

Other Harbingers of Spring

Bald Eagles may be the very first, but other signs are there too.

The scoter (seaduck) flocks are already beginning to mass at the mouth of Delaware Bay, out over the tumultuous “Rips” visible from the Cape May Point dune walkovers. Brightly plumaged male Red-breasted Mergansers, all sporting punk rock hairdos, are displaying to females throughout Cape May back bays, and on windless days, the loud and lusty “south-south-southerly” calls of hardy Long-tailed Ducks drift in from beyond the surf line of the Cape’s beaches.

By the time our next column reaches you, the “onk-a-lee” of Red-winged Blackbirds will punctuate even the frostiest February marsh mornings, and Mourning Doves will zoom across the sky in exuberant stiff-winged display flights.

Yes, winter birding is fabulous at Cape May, but enjoy it while you can. While there is still a lot of cold to come, every winter day needs to be cherished when you realize that the very first signs of spring are already here. So, excuse us now while we bundle up for another winter walk. The season beckon.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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